Stating the Obvious
Bobby Rich, Consultant
When it comes to writing, clarity is king. If what you’re writing isn’t clear, the reader will not be able to follow it, and the point you wished to make could be lost in misunderstanding. A big element of developing clarity in writing, and something which every writer will sometimes gloss over, is simply a matter of stating the obvious; that is to say, what is obvious to you as the writer, but not to the reader. Below are five questions that you can ask yourself when writing and revising in order to make sure that your writing is clear, and that you haven’t left out key, sometimes obvious, information.
Who is the audience you are writing to?
With any piece of writing, you have to consider your audience. Let’s say you have been assigned a writing assignment, with specific guidelines for what the paper should include and what questions you need to address. It is pretty simple to assume that the audience you are writing to will be your professor, and realistically it will be; but let’s consider a hypothetical audience. The hypothetical audience doesn’t know what sort of prompt or questions you are responding to, so you should give them context by restating the key points that you are addressing. Write as if the reader knows nothing about what you are presenting to them, but is reasonably intelligent and able to understand once you clearly explain the information to them. In short: don’t make any unwarranted assumptions about who will be reading your writing. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t make some assumptions, which leads to the next point to consider….
What background knowledge does your reader need?
Again, let’s assume the hypothetical audience is reasonably intelligent, but they don’t know anything specific about what you are writing about. If you just dig right in and get down to business in your writing, will the reader be able to follow, or do you need to slow down a bit and make sure your reader is grounded in the “basics” first? It will almost always be the latter. Think about how you should present the background info. Obviously you don’t want to spend the whole paper talking about it (the key is in the name “background”); but it is important that you establish for the reader what is foundational for them to fully understand what you are writing about, whether it be your life experiences or a lengthy research paper. However, in considering your audience, you can make some assumptions about what background knowledge they may already have. For example, a mathematics audience will have general knowledge of mathematics. Depending on your audience, some knowledge will be obvious, but…
If it is obvious to you, is it obvious to them?
There are some problems that all writers, no matter how advanced they may be, even if they have publications under their belt, will, time and again, encounter. One of the most frequently occurring problems is that of “glossing over” what the writer feels is obvious. Maybe you’re a freshman writing a personal narrative, drawing on your life experiences, or maybe you’re a PhD student writing about the intricacies of the works of a notoriously difficult 20th century philosopher, whom you just happen to be an expert on. Either way, you know a great deal about your topic, and so, when you’re writing, you skip over stating anything that seems particularly obvious to you. However, what is obvious to the writer is not always obvious to the reader, especially if you are writing about your own life. Sometimes we go from point A to point C without ever showing point B, and this can be lost on the reader. So, just because something seems obvious to you, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include it; often, that is precisely the statement you need to make your point clear, and speaking of which…
Is the point you’re trying to make implied, or is it explicit?
Another issue that develops from glossing over the obvious is relying too much on implied information or implied conclusions. Some things really do need to be made explicit to ensure that the reader understands what you are writing about. Consider this: if you were to speak to your friend, who knows nothing about what you have written about, and you were to simply explain to them a key point in your writing, how would you go about explaining it? Could you paraphrase what you mean? That is often what you need to include in your writing. A simple, but clear and explicit explanation can go a long way, which brings me to my final point…
Are you worried that what you want to write won’t sound “academic” enough?
Don’t be, seriously. There is a great myth that to succeed in college, your writing needs to be dense, complicated, and to appear very “academic.” It is a myth that has been impressed on so many of us for so long that we believe it is true. However, it’s just that: a myth. College writing doesn’t need to be complicated for the sake of being complicated, and you don’t need to exhibit a massive vocabulary or expansive knowledge of writing structures in order to write a successful paper. Don’t worry about trying to impress anyone. What really sounds “academic” is this: clear writing that gets all of the key points across in an effective way. This, more often than not, requires what many writers frequently either avoid because they don’t think they are “allowed” to write that way, or don’t think to do: stating the obvious.
If you’re concerned that maybe you’ve glossed over the obvious in your writing, and that your audience might not totally understand what you’ve written, one really effective solution is to let someone else read your paper and offer suggestions for revision; and if you come to the Writing Center, we will be happy to help you out.